This is the first online course I’ve taken on history and it’s a huge one, covering the entire world for the period stated over the course of seven weeks. Roughly speaking, its focus is on the transition between the ancient world and the modern one. Offered by the University of Virginia, it is taught by Philip Zelikow, a fairly prominent diplomat and foreign policy expert in the U.S. government, notably serving as the executive director of the 9/11 Commissioner. He’s probably more of a public policy expert than an academic scholar of history but it still means that he a major heavyweight.
The content of the course is as substantial as its ambitions with around an hour and a half to two hours of video lectures per week. Zelikow delivers them eloquently in a convivial manner with amazing elocution. His voice is so mellifluous that he could probably work as a voice actor. The lectures are supplemented with slides and handwriting to emphasize specific points. I especially appreciated how he draws on the artwork of the places and periods he talks about to demonstrate how contemporaries perceived the situation. As the professor repeatedly insists, its important to know how the people at that time viewed thing instead of interpreting everything through modern eyes so that we can understand why they did what they did.
The focus here is less on memorizing specific details of names, places and dates than on learning about the broad strokes of what happened around the world and the confluence of causes that made the events almost inevitable. The course starts with a description of what makes the ancient world so very different from the modern one and then slowly lays out the various revolutions: commercial, military and democratic that would completely overturn the old order. It then goes on to show how these huge changes would eventually lead to the creation of nation-states as we know them today. One of the most surprising things I learned in this course is how many of the familiar elements of life that we take for granted today: the dominance of cities, 9 to 5 jobs, brands of commercial products, public transport and all manner of public institutions stem from this relatively short period of time at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
As expected, the global history taught here is focused first on Europe, especially on Britain, and then later on the United States. There’s a good reason for that as this period is arguably all about Europe spreading its influence all over the world. While the coverage for the rest of the world is less comprehensive, I was still pleased by how much there is and how fair the treatment is. The professor makes the case that prior to this period, China is arguably the greatest civilization in the world and gives persuasive reasons why the subsequent development of Europe compounded by the choices of various Chinese governments ended up with China being left behind. There are also excellent bits about regions like the Middle-East, Africa and South America. It ended up being a more global course than I’d expected.
One common thread in all this that I noticed is how history is essentially the story about how different factions vie for wealth, power and influence. Though the professor takes pains to note that not everything is naked self-interest as there were factions who were motivated by their zeal to spread either their religion or their cultural values, it strikes me that ultimately this was acceptable only so long as those missions were compatible with more self-interested concerns. The course also reminded me that even the early campaigners in favor of democracy were hardly saints: they envisioned that only the wealthy landowning elites, i.e. the people like themselves, would be able to vote under these new systems. True universal suffrage arrived only relatively late into the picture.
The only flaw that I can think of is that Zelikow tries maybe a little too hard to bind everything into a single narrative. This works most of the time but when he spends time flitting from one region to the next updating the audience on what happened to each of them, it’s not always clear that they have much in common except the rather trite one that change always comes and nothing stays the same for long. Also, other than the excellent video lectures, the course doesn’t seem to have any other kind of content, not even any handouts and the quality of the quizzes seems questionable. Contrary to my own expectations and experiences with these open access courses, the discussion forums are wonderfully populated and present a decent variety of other views.
If you’ve followed me so far, you’d already know that I greatly enjoyed this course and think very highly of it. I was also pleasantly surprised to note that part two of this course is already available and promptly signed up for it. I think its availability was somewhat obscured by Coursera who is now more aggressively trying to get students to sign up for the paid versions of the certificates. Hopefully Coursera will continue to allow online users who care nothing about the accreditation but are just there to learn for the sake of it to have full access to all of the courses.